“By the time I am finished with you, you are going to play like you’ve never played before.”
True to his first words in Glenina, Warren Gatland brought Galwegians to a new level, into the All Ireland League, and playing some of the most memorable and innovative rugby in Ireland.
Not only coach on the field, he was a manager too, and from an “a la carte attitude to training”, he introduced a fine system to ensure discipline in the team and required numbers at training. Off the field, it was a case of walk like a duck, be a duck. With all members required to wear shirt, tie and jumpers, Galwegians began to look like what they were training to be.
It resonated with the players and Jody Green, who saw Gatland as an “All Black”.
“He never struck me as a 26-years-old – he always came across as someone who was an All Black and a fantastic coach who was doing something for us that we had never had before. All the building blocks were being put in place by him as both manager and a coach. All the things they take for granted now, we were introduced to them for the first time by him.”
Quiet by nature, Gatland never raised his voice. There was no banging tables, but his teaching skills were evident in ensuring the messages were received loud and clear in his own way.
Although he had not set any goals on arrival, he did establish objectives – nothing too phenomenal – to make training more enjoyable and educational, to implement clear calls and moves that every player understood, to promote individual players by playing quality rugby and being successful – and the fourth, and the most crucial, was to set team rules. All players had to turn up at training and on time, and would only be absent with prior permission.
He made them work hard and taught self discipline – the Hennie Muller drill, named after a South African player, was a well known form of torture – figures of eight round the pitch, and timed. It was all about self-discipline, honesty both on the pitch and in training. If a player cut a corner or went inside the flag, Gatland would always ask at the end if anyone cut the corner. However it also made it enjoyable.
On one occasion after the question was asked, he followed up with, anyone not get a shift last night? Shane Guerin put his hand up, followed by brother Enda,
“I’m with you bro.” So the two were told to do another lap as a result. Halfway around the pitch, they realised the entire squad was rolling around on the ground in stitches.
He also introduced a fine system, but it would pay for the pints after matches – a celebration or bonding session on Saturday night was all part of the building blocks.
“Fast forward to Gatland’s Lions v All Blacks,” says O’Donnell. “The Lions are under pressure going into the last match, but Gatland takes the squad for a day out, a few beers and a sing-song, where everyone had to sing a song from their own country – that was Gatty back in Galwegians.”
In addition to his attention to detail, he was an innovator and a thinker – and few forget his 15-man line-out, while also carrying that further in the scrum and driving maul, where backs could join it. That too was perfected with practice on the pitch – ensuring each player knew how to join legally. Such thinking was ahead of its time, and few teams initially had it figured out.
Green remembers travelling to St Mary’s which had been a bogey team for Galwegians.
On one occasion when taking a hammering, hooker Ciaran Fitzgerald had taken a conversion just for laughs, but on the next occasion under Gatland, it was the Glenina side that prevailed after taking them apart with their rolling maul.
Meticulous in its planning, everyone was tutored how and where they could join it, and where to put their shoulder, and cleverly, Gatland took time to have conversations with referees, basically telling them what was going to happen – in accordance with the rules – so his innovative practices would not take them by surprise.
Brian O’Donnell, playing outhalf on one occasion, recalls the armchair ride he was given as a result.
“The referee was Alan Lewis, and I remember him saying ‘this is actually beautiful’ as I was walking along with him, and bringing the centres with me.”